How to Listen to Preaching
A Series on The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 154-160
Recently my wife and I had a rare opportunity to go out to eat. Wanting to make the most of it, I chose a restaurant that I knew had a good reputation and made reservations. Before getting there, I went to their online menu to see my dinner options. So, before I sat down, I already knew what I was going to have – in fact, I had been thinking about it all day. That little amount of planning and preparation allowed me to enjoy my meal and time with my wife that much more.
I’m sure you have done the same. However, I wonder if we give the same effort and attention to the preached word as it is “served up” every week by our pastors in the local church? Can we say that week by week we have fed upon the Word of God as fully as we might? Or could all of use a little more diligence in this area and improve our spiritual appetite?
While I absolutely agree it is incumbent upon the pastor to, “Preach the word in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), there is an equal duty upon the hearer to hear what is preached. Jesus statement, “He who has ears let him hear” (Mt. 11:15) has much more meaning to it than having the auditory ability to hear. So how can we be better hearers of the Word of God?
This is the subject of Westminster Larger Catechism question #160, “What is required of those that hear the Word?”. We can break down the answer into three parts – before, during, and after – the word is preached. Let’s take a look at each one:
Before the Word Preached
Most churchgoers believe they are doing well if they show up, let alone doing anything before the word is preached. However, the catechism says that it is required to “attend upon [the preached word] with diligence, preparation, and prayer.” In other words, there should be a holy expectation for what will occur in and through the preached word and worship service. Just like I had an eager expectation for the meal at the restaurant, or you might have excitement for an upcoming event, so the believer should have an expectation for what the Spirit of God will do through the Word before it is given and have made preparations to receive it.
What type of preparation? Like arranging your schedule so that you can be in attendance, and free of other work and distractions; being in prayer for yourself, those attending, and the pastor as he prepares and then delivers the message; reading the Scripture passage beforehand so as to already have your mind set upon it. This last one is easy to do if your church preaches sequential expository sermons, but if not, perhaps you can get the passage early from an online posting of the bulletin, or by arriving early to the service to read the passage beforehand.
During the Word Preached
While listening may seem like a passive activity, being a good listener takes a lot of active effort. This is especially true while the word is preached and why the catechism calls for two actions – examining and receiving. The hearer of the word must, “examine what they hear by the scriptures.” This calls for discernment and being a Berean (Acts 17:11) to know that what is being said is the truth of God. If it is, then it is not the preacher’s words, but it is God’s word to His people and therefore should be received as such.
That preached truth is therefore to be received, “with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God.” In other words, the hearer is to allow the word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit to deeply penetrate his or her heart, mind, and life. To bring to bear the full comfort and conviction of God’s living and active word through that preached word (Heb. 4:12).
After the Word Preached
Even when the sermon is over the requirements are not done. In reality the catechism seems to place the greatest emphasis on the work to be done after the sermon is preached, as it calls to, “meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” The truth of God’s word should stick with us in our hearts and minds. We should bring it to thought throughout the week and ponder on it some more. Notice this is not to be just an individual task, but a corporate one. That is what it means when it says to “confer of it” – to discuss it with others. This conferring should take place in the family – both immediate family and church family – as well as to those outside of the church as we proclaim to the world the good news of what we have heard.
Furthermore, the truth of that preached word should find root in our hearts and minds, and by the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit bring forth evidence of it in our lives. As one pastor, when complemented at the back doors on a good sermon, replied, “It has only been preached, it has yet to be lived,” so too sermons should go far beyond the final “amen”.
Whereas I have shelves of books on how to preach, I have only one book on how to listen to sermons. This wonderful Catechism question helps to correct the misnomer that preaching is only upon the preacher. All of us as the Body of Christ have a part to play when it comes to the preached word and having the “ears to hear.” Let us therefore give greater diligence to the requirements of the word preached for our individual and corporate good.
Ken Ramsey, Expository Listening (Kress Biblical Resources; Woodlands, TX, 2010) is an excellent resource and speaks to this topic in a biblical and practical manner. Highly recommend it.